Bangladesh’s national interests could be compromised in providing India with a free transport corridor.
Free Transport Corridor to India puts Bangladesh at risk.
The face of Ashuanj has changed. This little town of Bangladesh hitherto known only for its fertilizer factory is now bustling with activity. Vessel after vessel is arriving at the port, heavy machinery is being unloaded, massive container trucks are parked at a nearby depot, an expansive container yard is being constructed, and there is much more. Are the people thrilled with all these activities going on? After all, it looks like big time development, and big time development means big time money, a boost to the economy.
No, the truth is that there is anger and indignation simmering over these activities.
The work going on in full swing at Ashuganj is to ensure full implementation of transit facilities for India, for it to transport goods from one part of the country to another, over Bangladesh territory.
When the present government of Bangladesh decided to comply with India’s long-standing demand for transit facilities to its northeastern states, it was immediately met by a strong voice of protest, not only from the opposition, but from civil society and the common people too. It was not just the ingrained anti-Indian spirit that egged on this protest, but there were several reasons why this facility was eyed with suspicion.
Though talking about regional or sub-regional connectivity in public, the ruling Awami League government in Bangladesh granted and operationalized a ‘transport corridor’ with In- dia through the country without any fee. Over the years, the economic dividends of granting transit to India had been highlighted, but the ground reality now shows that the dividends in financial terms are nil. And the haste and secrecy accompanying the entire deal, gives an uncanny feeling that all is not well.
The free transport corridor between Bangladesh and India became effective on March 29 this year. Soon after the signing of the MOU on the transport corridor between Bangladesh and India, 16 diversion roads were built to facilitate heavy-duty trailers carrying equipment for the Palatana Power Station being constructed in the Indian state if Tripura. Two temporary depots have been constructed on leased land to store the machinery and equipment. The district administration has begun acquiring land to construct a yard with capacity for 60 thousand containers.
Whether Customs at Ashuganj river port or Akhaura border post, both in Bangladesh, are equipped with necessary logistic support to scan the huge hardware being received and sent also seem to have been kept confidential.
Promises of a sub-regional connectivity with dreams of earning millions, the passage through Bangladesh has now been reduced to a transport corridor with only one country and that too without any fee. Indians demand that the passage through land route of the country should be provided for free.
“India needs the help of Bangladesh to get the environmentfriendly and cheap electricity, and Bangladesh should extend its hand for that,” said Dr. Mashiur Rahman, Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan speaking in favor of fee waiver said, since the Indians were constructing the road connection Bangladesh needed direly, why should they pay any fee?
Dr. Mashiur Rahman went to the extent of saying, “Had our country been an uncivilised one or our leaders been illiterate then we could have asked for the fees, but that’s not the case.”
Again, security is vitally interlinked with this transport corridor. The nature of the goods being transported must be scrutinized and monitored on a regular basis and security must also be provided for safe transportation of the goods. Bangladesh lacks facilities for both types of such security measures.
There are health risks involved
too. If hundreds of vehicles travel from India through Bangladesh every day, health problems are bound to crop up. Top on the list is HIV/ AIDS. India, according to official reports, had six million identified AIDSaffected persons. This outnumbers AIDS patients anywhere else in the world. The main cause of concern is that the three regions of India with the highest prevalence of AIDS, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland, are near the Bangladesh border. To make matters worse, it is the truck drivers in India who are mostly AIDS virus carriers and they are the ones who will be entering Bangladesh.
Another inevitable fallout of transit is smuggling and illegal drug trade. Bangladesh is facing the menace of the addictive drug Phensidyl being smuggled over the border into the country. Phensidyl has become such a serious business for the Indians now that all along their side of the Bangladesh border so far 132 Phensidyl factories have been identified. Though the Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB) has approached the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) with these facts and figures, no measures have been taken to resolve the matter.
When there are so many unresolved bilateral issues, why is only transit being brought to the table? It would only be expected that Bangladesh will receive equal trade benefits in exchange for granting India transit. This would include expanded entry of Bangladeshi goods in the Indian market as well as facilities to transport goods from Bangladesh over Indian territory to Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, etc. But that is not to be so.
There are several other unresolved issues Bangladesh has with India – determining the maritime boundary, demarcation of land borders, killing of innocent Bangladeshis by the BSF along the border, water sharing, Farakka Barrage and Tipaimukh Dam - all these remain unresolved.
India is Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. India’s business in Bangladesh is four billion dollars, while Bangladesh exports only 3.6 million dollars worth of commodities to India. Basically Bangladeshi goods can’t enter the Indian market due to nontariff barriers. Negotiations have been on in this connection over the last eight years, but things haven’t moved an inch in Bangladesh’s favor.
Towards the end of the nineties, the Ganges water sharing treaty was signed in a similar hurried and secretive manner., But a decade on, Bangladesh is yet to receive its fair share of water. All of the bilateral agreements signed between Bangladesh and India in the past have met the same fate. So, on a regional level the big question is, why is Bangladesh sitting with India alone to discuss the issue of transit instead of dealing with this issue multilaterally with other countries of the region? There are many similar questions for which no answers are being given. The writer is a senior journalist and is presently Editor of the Dhaka-based PROBE news magazine. Her focus of interest is South Asian security and politics.
The Bangladeshi civil society eyes India